The New Year with P&O Ferries

Fancy staying closer to home this year? Well, says John Hillman, why not have a ride over the Reims?

No sooner has the tinsel been boxed up and the tree dispatched to the local recycling plant that thoughts begin to wander across the channel..

The Champagne-Ardenne region of north-west France lies open to discovery; just a few hours’ drive from the port of Calais this land of medieval walled towns, lakes and forests is close enough to make a long weekend road trip just about feasible.

Heading down the A26 brings you into a world of vintage wines and fine gastronomic flavours, set against backdrops of outstanding natural beauty all around you.

Champagne-Ardenne is over 60% agricultural land and like many regions of France is suffering from a rural exodus as people give up the dream and head into the cities in search of modern apartments and cheap Chinese plastic gadgets to fill them with.

Until now these rural runaways were being occasionally replaced with English families’ intent on living out their Good Life fantasies, but financial crises (and all that) are probably having a slight affect on their numbers too, so expect it to be very quiet.

Champagne, the regions famous sparkling wine, was once produced in this region using the waste from the streets of Paris as fertiliser for the grape vines. It was the ultimate recycling system and an early example of making good use of old rubbish. This went on throughout time until it was finally brought to a halt in the 20th century because of the sudden increase in modern non-organic waste that was finding its way into the soil; think about that next time you’re showing off your 1954 vintage.

But human waste wasn’t the only old rubbish Paris used to send this way as it is also the place where French Kings came to be crowned at the cathedral in the regional capital of Reims.

Attracting more than 500,000 visitors a year the Notre-Dame de Reims is as ancient as it is spectacular, sitting on the site of an older church that was destroyed by fire in 1211 and completed at the end of the 13th century this is actually where Joan of Arc attended the coronation of Charles VII in 1429. It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991.

The city of Reims itself dates back to pre-Roman Gaul and is packed full of picturesque squares, such as the Place Drouet d’Erlon, with its many bars and pretty fountains, and the Place Cardinal Lucon with its equestrian statue of Joan of Arc.

Anyone wishing to break the monotony of the coming winter months will do well to get to Reims for the annual performing arts festival, Le Cirque Educatif, which takes place between 9th January and 1st February in a beautifully restored stone circus building in the centre of town. Every year more than 45,000 people turn out to see the processions of clowns and acrobats who parade through the streets on their way to perform, where they then show off their skills amongst some of the best up-and-coming acts in the world of circus. A fine example of how to beat the winter blues.